Saturday, March 24, 2012

Kickstarter and why I'm a skeptic

This started as a Facebook response to a friend who works at another major game studio but I decide it rantworthy enough for a blog post. I've found in general, that other devs are excited about Kickstarter. I want to to be too and in some ways I am.

For Tim Schafer and Double Fine, I get it and am happy for them: he's an industry rockstar who's studio hasn't been as commercially successful as it is critically and creatively successful. He leads a team that I know makes games I like. It's a perfect candidate for Kickstarter and I am down.

Brian Fargo and "Wasteland 2" also appeals to my game idealism. I LOVED turn based RPGs and much preferred the Fallout 1&2 gameplay to Baldur's Gate's semi-turn based model. His games bring back good memories but neither Interplay or inExile's track record isn't as solid as Double Fine's. That's probably not Brian Fargo's fault and he thrived with small teams in the 90s but it's fair to say his horse is less safe to bet on.

And these two are the safest bets to getting a good game out of Kickstarter, in my mind. Because so far, all I've seen is funny videos or clever pitches. Maybe buried in this gold rush is some team that had the discipline to self-fund a vertical slice or playable proof-of-concept but I've yet to see one.

So to answer my friend's assertion, yes, I am absolutely a skeptic and I'll explain why:

Like most developers, I'm not a fan of the model of the way publisher/3rd party developer relationships typically work. Games are held back by the current money/carrot on a string model and publishers are clearly more risk averse than hey used to be so Kickstarter is *potentially* enabling some cool stuff.

My real problem is that I feel Kickstarter has opened the doors to a massive credit line of gamer equity and trust, begging to be raped and pillaged by unscrupulous scoundrels and idealists alike. Now people can twist words to puff up their resumes ("I was THE animator on Battlefield 3!") to sound credible to the public, who are convinced that conventional game distribution is the devil and that without a pub/producer to crack the whip and stick their fingers in the pie, the game will be unhindered in it's vision because the idea was great. But even some great dev teams need someone to crack the whip and a great inspiration is nothing without the 99% perspiration it takes to make it a reality.

Publishers are why games are hard to *fund* but even at their very worst, they are just one of many, many reasons why they are hard to *finish" and *make good*. The idealism of B-list Kickstarter projects is ignoring that elephant in the room.

It also ignores that a good resume doesn't automatically make YOU good; something even seasoned developers who should know better still fall into so naturally the public is going to. "You did facial animation on GTA3! I loved that game!" But... GTA3 has 2-3 frames of facial animation! Chances are there was at least one shitty animator on "Avatar" and maybe one shitty designer on whatever your favorite AAA game is.

Some of these games are going to come out and be disappointments and others aren't going to come out at all and I fear this is going to max out Kickstarter/the public's credit line of good will and gamers could wind up bigger cynics than they were at the start. There is no such thing as a magic bullet and easy solutions aren't as common as people want to think.

I'm sure my cynicism flavors my judgement but I see Kickstarter less as the democratization of game publishing and more as the early days of a debt crisis, where all the equity is trust and goodwill. Games are hard to make and I've seen a lot of smart people fail at it.

In the words of the Eagles, an ex-girlfriend's least favorite band in the world: "Call somewhere paradise? Kiss it goodbye."

I forgot I had this thing...

...but I realized today that I was wasting good rants on Facebook replies or not fully expressing myself through 140 character tweets since my manner of speaking tends to the the opposite of terse.

And I don't want to bogart the Reanimators Podcast blog with my own musings so I'm going to semi-revive this blog.

Quick update for any of my handful of readers who aren't also on my Facebook or Twitter (which is probably no one): I spent another year on the road and in 2011 worked in New Mexico on my first film "Green Lantern", then took off some time and went to Texas to work on my car before heading back to Europe to animate first person weapons on "Battlefield 3". Now I'm back in the US; Los Angeles in particular and have taken a full time job at EA, working on the next Medal of Honor game. Now that we're all caught up, I'll post my first rant seperately.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

How to Train your Dragon...

I'm doing pretty lousy at this blog updating thing. I keep forgetting I have it.

So I did wind up getting not one but four different contracts since the last time and am getting a better understanding for the rollercoaster of contract work. I went from not knowing where I was going to sleep the next night to having a month solid of contract work and staying in short term apartments or nice hotels. I like having to be on my toes.

This week is my last week for contract gigs in Helsinki and I'll be heading back to Amsterdam next week, then the US soon after. There are contract prospects for both offsite freelance as well as some longer term contracts but in the short term (November/December) I am going back to Austin, Texas and do some work on my cars and be in the US for Christmas since I missed it last time.

Anyway, I *finally* saw "How to Train Your Dragon" after seeing a lot of the behind the scenes stuff at Gobelins this summer, where animation supervisor Kristof Serrand was one of the teachers. The verdict?

This is hand down the best animated feature that Dreamworks has made. No shitty pop culture references, crappy pop punk music, fart jokes or any obvious sign of market research trumping the creatives.

"Kung Fu Panda" was descent (and I honestly find it kind of overrated, especially by other animators)but it was still a Dreamworks movie. Nice art but with leanings towards what suits think are offbeat, "zany" characters that appeal to kids and often have some doughboy of a protagonist who bumbles his way out of Act 1 after some big trouble that he's responsible for, either through his hubris, dishonesty or slapstick clumsiness.

In "Dragon", Hiccup is a clearly a runt and appears at first to be a typical Dreamworks underdog but the way it plays out is understated and believable; not over the top as they tend to do. Hiccup wasn't a conman or a self-delusional, big loser. He actually felt like a pretty normal guy.

I was really enjoying the first half but I was certain how they would handle the inevitable "all is lost" low point in Act 2 and I knew it was going to piss me off. I thought in the training montage that we were being set up for a moment where Hiccup would somehow use the knowledge he gained training with Toothless, in a moment of cliched hubris, to prove himself to his Dad or otherwise turn it against the dragons. I thought he would be responsible for the inevitable mess but when it did happen, Hiccup really hadn't done anything wrong, which made the whole thing feel a bit more human and not like a one-dimensional cartoon. I was very pleasantly surprised by that.


The way the story plays out seems to finally capture what makes the better Disney movies and all the Pixar movies so excellent; they focus on story with broad appeal above everything else; not cliched characters or conservative, by-the-numbers storytelling that assumes kids are idiots. Dreamworks has often seemed well aware that they were making kids movies but "Dragon" is the first of theirs that felt like they made a movie for everyone.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

General update

Ok, I have a bit more time in the lobby (they're cleaning my room right now) so I'll fill in the gaps since last time I posted (August 31st; not the one from an hour ago).

It's October now and I'm staying at a hotel in Helsinki, Finland. I got here on Thursday; before that I was back in Amsterdam (again!) for a few days. I wound up staying in Cologne until September 24th. I was going to stay through September but PJ's birthday party was the night of the 24th in Amsterdam so I came back a few days early.

Going back to Amsterdam is always nice; it still feels like home to me, which is a rare feeling for someone like me. Most of my friends there are busting ass on Guerrilla's next game and I understand how time flies when you do that. But after being away for two months, some people say "hey, welcome back!" but a few instead say "You're here *again*?" It's done playfully; they're friends of mine but still... I know I go back there enough that I don't expect or deserve special treatment (if they made a doll of me that talks when you pulled it's string, one of the phrases might be "It's my last night in Amsterdam! Let's go to the Waterhole!") but c'mon, it's a nice city and I like it there so stop acting so surprised that I like spending time with you jerks :P

As for Cologne, I got my demo reel pretty much done as I'd planned to, but the second month was definitely less focused and productive. I started getting contacted by places that were hiring and had to make some early cuts of my reel to send off, do some phone interviews and chase up a couple of contracts, one of which is still up in the air and the other of which fell through rather spectacularly and frustratingly. Mostly my fault because I let myself get excited over it before anything was signed but I'm finding companies to be a lot flakier about contract work than they are about finding full time people.

It's also starting to seem like game companies aren't really used to the freelance model of work and might not quite understand why we cost more than their full time staff (it's not unlike why hookers cost more per hour than girlfriends. If all you need is that one service with no commitment or long term relationship, the hooker is probably going to be cheaper in the end. And better at it.) Talking to some other contractors has reinforced that suspicion but I imagine it varies a lot by company.

Two months might've been too long to isolate myself anyway but it might be wise next time to better separate my work related and personal contact info, or at least be a bit more resolute about saying "no" til I was good and ready to start finding work. On the other hand, saying "no" to work that finds you when you're available but have other plans, probably isn't the most successful strategy for being a successful freelance animator.

So now I'm back in Helsinki and have got into the spirit of things by shopping for some warm clothes today. I've been out four nights in a row (1x Amsterdam, 3x Helsinki) so last night I practically sleepwalked home after just a few beers, then proceeded to sleep for over 10 hours, right through the hotel's breakfast buffet. Tonight I am staying dry, warm and cozy. Tomorrow I will hopefully know if I will be doing some freelance work here in Finland and staying for a few more weeks or if I'll be off to places unknown once again.

Work/animation-wise, the portfolio is done as of this week and I'm shifting my focus to finding my next gig. I'm considering a shift to a full-time job as there are some good ones at some cool places available right now. On the other hand, every freelance job I've had so far has found me and I've enjoyed the lifestyle a lot so far. I might find a lot more success with it if I actually start looking and promoting myself.

Travel advisory: watch out for brown people with machine guns in public places everywhere in Europe

From today's news: The US is likely to issue a travel warning for Americans in Europe to "avoid public places" for threat of an al-Queda attack.

I'm curious of the history of US travel advisories: if this is par for the course (it isn't in the the years that I've been paying attention) or if this one is extra stupid?

What really worries me is the people who take this stuff too seriously, like we saw with the recent case of the American backpackers detained as spies in Iran. It was pretty shocking and disgusting to me to see so many Americans saying "serves them right!" because everyone knows that they'll kill you just for being American in a Muslim country. Even though the US travel advisory for Iran doesn't actually say "don't go there"; it says "be careful and understand that things work different there," which is fair enough. And even though Iran is not a warzone and people from other countries DO go there for tourism. Americans should know as well as anyone that a loudmouth president doesn't make your entire country into xenophobic murderers.

That case pissed me off, because suddenly travel to an Islamic country because a punishable crime in the eyes of some Americans. Not poor judgment; poor judgment is dressing like a hooker in a biker bar or flashing a Rolex on the midnight subway. We sympathize with crime victims who exhibit poor judgment.

But when someone has the audacity to travel to a country that Americans are afraid of? Let 'em rot. Despite the fact that I've met plenty of Americans who think they'll kill you for being American *in France*. (and by the way; if you're one of those Americans who wears Canadian flags because you believe this, you are a chicken shit and you suck) Hell, I had people in Seattle warn me that I should never drive east of the 10 freeway in LA because I had an ex-police car and all the gangbangers would open fire on sight. The less people have traveled, the longer the list of places they're afraid of are.

So my roundabout point is that this travel advisory is less than useless; it's irresponsible and only fuels an already out of control xenophobia. It sounds like somebody really wants to say "I told you so!" when pretty much anything bad happens. "Watch out for armed brown people and stay away from crowds in 1/6th of the inhabitable world?" Yeah, thanks a lot guys. Huge help.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Animation Isolation: The Home Stretch

Well, that went by fast and was chronicled poorly. I still need to work on channeling my Facebook ramblings into a proper blog format. I think that's better actually. Facebook is such a disposable medium for thoughts and moments.

So, it's the end of August, and by the original plan, I'd be on a train back to Amsterdam today. In my new, adjusted plan, I have the Cologne apartment for at least two more weeks and am gonna make some more stuff before I put together my shiny, new reel.

What I've accomplished so far:
-10 second "swing animation"
-Spent 3-4 days on "The Head" animation piece which is 35+ seconds long before I decided it would take too long and wasn't good game reel material. I might come back to this later, for a film/acting oriented reel.
-30 second acting piece "The Suitcase"
(Both of these will get at least one more pass but I'm fairly happy with them)
-Learned advanced facial rigging in Max; half-set up my TF2 Demo Girl character's face before deciding to shelf it until the reel is done; I'm not trying to get a job as a rigger
-Took a week off of any animation responsibilities to get smashed nightly with some of my favorite people from Remedy, Recoil and Guerrilla during GDC and Gamescom.
-Touch ups to one of the Monday Night Combat animations of the mascot character. I was hoping to touch up some of the other work I did at Uber but it depended on facial animation and I don't have the necessary textures.
-Assembled a massive "mega reel" of my Alan Wake and Monday Night Combat animations. It's 15 minutes long, which I will go through and hack down to the best samples.
-Currently working on a quadruped walk cycle (a panther), which is coming along.
-Next up is horse gallop or run cycle (haven't decided yet).

When the two quadruped cycles are done, I am going to shift into editing mode (next week) and finally get this thing together.

So animation stuff aside...

I've found a correlation between my isolation and my Facebook usage. Which is bad. Starved for social contact, Facebook becomes much more addictive but not really any more beneficial. Real human contact still much preferred. This is something to consider on any future animation isolations. The question is to I want to crank it back and not spend more than two weeks away from the world? Or should I just go somewhere with no net connection and properly lose my mind?

I have gone out a couple times, just on my own. I caught "Inception" at the one "Original Version" theater I've found in Cologne, then hung out with the bar staf of an Irish pub. Then just last Friday, I went to a different pub we frequented with the Guerrilla guys and wound up hanging out with a revolving door of interesting people: discussing the moon landing with an Welshmen who assembled convention booths, hung out with an Australian guy and later, his German girlfriend before meeting a German soldier who wanted to move to the US and join the Marines. The revolving door of people is probably the number one reason why I love to travel and it was nice to get some of that, even when I'm not *technically* on vacation.

Other than that... I've been listening to tons of Americana music since I've been here with heavy emphasis on CCR and the Old 97s. I don't know if that's a phase or grasping for some kind of national identity when deprived of human contact but they're both excellent bands so no excuse is really needed.

I'm doing pushups every day to combat my otherwise sedentary days, sometimes jogging and almost always eating carb-light from the afternoons on as part of a weird, made-up diet of some bullshit I read off the internet. But I like veggies so it's cool, though I'm quite far from my borderline vegetarian phases in California and Finland. My bullshit made-up diet also includes doing the small portions more often routine, which I've been doing pretty much since Seattle. Note to self when I get my home furnishings back from Finland: get rid of my bigass plates from Target. The plates I have here are barely bigger than saucers and I think that's a good thing.

Through the travel tactic of washing only mission critical clothing in sinks (never resorting to turning underwear inside out!) and the judicious use of Febreeze on non-mission critical clothing, I stretched a 2 week supply of socks and underwear to over 3 weeks. Not ideal but since week three included binge drinking and a games convention, smell was not a top priority. Since you can still smoke inside in Cologne bars (a rarity for Europe these days; even for the rest of Germany), you just wind up smelling like cigarette butts anyway.

Maybe that's TMI. But my underwear was always clean!

I've actually never had to travel so far to wash clothes as I did here, when I finally did take my laundry excursion. Laundrymats are sparse in the suburbs so I would up hauling a suitcase full of laundry through downtown Cologne, to what seemed to be laundrymat with a bar attached but what was really just a bar called "laundrymat" (Cafe Waschsalon) without any laundry machines. Thankfully it's close to a real laundrymat and now I'm fresh like the Snuggle bear.

As we turn the corner into September, I have to start thinking about what to do for my next work gig as well as getting back to Finland before the end of the month to say hi, check in and see if anyone needs anything animated. Animation Isolation will be coming to an end around the 14th or more likely, the 21st of September. Then I need to figure out if it's cheaper to get to Helsinki via Cologne or Amsterdam.

I think that when I thought of writing this entry, I had in mind a moral or something. But then my brain just pukes out a bunch of crap, not wrapping up as neatly as an episode of Full House does.

So it won't wrap up that way.

If you've read this far, do me a favor and leave a comment or something. I still have my doubts of the point of blogging in 2010 so it'd be nice to know if anyone is actually reading this shit or if I'm just leaving a bread crumb trail to complicate my future employment.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Day... oh who the hell cares?

Big day today! Finished a first pass of my suitcase animation (the one that was gonna be five seconds? It's 29), went into town, bought tickets for The Real McKenzies next month, bought a Sony Ericsson Experia x10 smartphone (which is smaller than your iPhone and more anti-establishmentarianist), saw "Inception", drank a bunch at an Irish pub and am now sitting on my "balcony" (the roof) with a tasty Kolsch on my netbook with no backlit keyboard. Big success.

The smartphone is a big step for me. Normally my phone criteria is "will it survive when I drop it?" But now, after 6 years of wandering the world (okay, Europe mostly) I finally have a damn map and GPS. The challenge is to not become a smartphone introvert. When you can check Facebook in a bar, it's convenient sure but you're a lot less likely to chat up strangers. I'm doing fine so far.

Gamescom is creeping up and I think the demo reel is covered with a couple of days of polish left for the swing and suitcase anims. Good thing too, as the first of my Auslander friends arrives on Sunday with a whole friggin' mob of them on Wednesday. I got some good pointers on Cologne from the expats at the Irish Pub (always an easy mark for meeting expats and foreigners in any city) and now I have a better idea on how to find things to do when I feel like crawling out of my cave.

And speaking of crawling out of my cave, the guy I'm subletting from met a girl on his road trip (nicely done!) and is going to be away for a bit longer, so I think I'm going to stay in Cologne (I know I am alternating between the English and German names for it; my proper laptop can do umlouts, my netbook cannot) for at least two more weeks. Though after Gamescom I hope to have a better idea of what my next work gig is going to be and probably what my next destination is.

No dramatic conclusion or moral to this one. Wait, there is: I'd like to take a moment to thank English tourists for making us Yanks look so well behaved in foreign pubs. Cheers for that!